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Spotlights and Deep-Dives

Peddler’s Gin: Distilling Sichuan Peppers At China’s First Craft Gin Distillery

Distiller Spotlight: Peddlers Gin
Region: China

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Whenever one thinks of the spirits scene in China, it is Baijiu that immediately comes to mind. Naturally so, as Baijiu accounts for around 98% of spirits consumption in the country, and leading baijiu brands like Kweichow Moutai and Wu Liang Ye dominating the market. Whether it’s a work meeting with clients, a family reunion or a festive celebration, baijiu is most certainly the default libation of choice. 

Yet in recent years, demand for alternative and more modern forms of craft spirits has been slowly sprouting among China’s youth in urban cities like Shanghai, Chengdu and Shenzhen. Call this the growing 2% if you will! Sales of gin, in particular, has proven to be one of the fastest-growing alcohol categories in China.

  

The changing face of China's bar shelves. (Image Source: Peddlers Gin)

 

One of the pioneering distilleries that have helped to push this demand shift has been Peddler’s Gin, China’s first ever craft gin distillery. Peddler’s Gin first entered the local spirits scene in 2016, drawing attention with its swanky branding and innovative use of China’s diverse spices and botanicals to create contemporary flavours infusions with Eastern flavour profiles. 

In a baijiu-dominated domestic market, founders Ryan McLeod, Joseph Judd and Fergus Woodward were perhaps aware of the brand’s niche positioning, and thus set an aim to target “the most discerning and adventurous of drinkers”. As China’s first of its kind, Peddlers Gin took on the added pressure of having to represent an entire category and all its potentialities to would-be new gin drinkers.

How has Peddler’s Gin risen to the challenge? And what goes behind making China’s first craft gin? Read on to find out.

 

Eastern Botanicals, Sourced Across China

From the beginning, Peddler’s Gin was founded with the goal of creating a uniquely Asian gin that incorporated the use of Chinese botanicals befitting of the brand’s birthplace. With this in mind, early experimentation even saw the trio go through test distillations of ingredients like green tea, lemongrass and even bamboo.

 

The eleven botanicals used in Peddlers Gin. (Image Source: Peddlers Gin)

 

Today, the Peddler’s Gin botanical blend consists of a range of flora and fauna indigenous to China, from lotus sourced from Gansu, to liquorice sourced from Guangdong near the Han River; from Angelica sourced from Northeast China, to almonds sourced from the ‘Heavenly Mountains’ of Tianshan.

But perhaps the real hero ingredients of Peddler’s Gin (and what tends to spark the most interest from curious drinkers) is their use of Sichuan peppercorns and Buddha’s Hand.

 

Sichuan pepper is an indispensable part of popular Sichuanese cuisine. (Image Source: What To Cook Today, Haidilao Hotpot, Burrple)

 

For the uninitiated, Sichuan peppers are spicy peppers popularly used in Sichuanese cuisine. What’s unique about Sichuan peppers is the tingly, numbing feeling you get when you consume it, and the subtle citrus note that is carried with it.

Sichuan peppers are often paired with chilli in popular Chinese dishes to create a numb-spiciness known colloquially as ma-la (麻辣). Even outside China, in countries like Singapore or Malaysia, there are often tons of popular local chains serving Sichuan hotpot, Mala Xiang Guo, and Sichuanese grilled fish – all of which would not taste half as flavourful without the mighty Sichuan pepper!

 

 

Sichuan Pepper (Image Source: Graeme Kennedy)

 

Given its immense popularity among Chinese foodies and the unique flavour profile it yields, it was only natural that Sichuan peppercorns would be shortlisted as a potential ingredient when creating Peddler’s Gin. Yet, the tricky thing about using this spice is figuring out a way to maintain a delicate balance of flavours. Ideally, you want the fiery peppercorns to invite a spicy, aromatic kick to the palette, but not as much that this becomes overpowering and renders the gin one-dimensional. Achieving this requires careful trial and error to ascertain the correct proportions of spices, and some choice decisions about infusion during the distillation phase (more on this later).

 

Buddha's Hand (Image Source: Spruce Eats)

 

As for Buddha’s Hand, this seemed at first like a rather obscure choice for a gin botanical. Hailing from Yunnan, this ingredient has mainly been used in traditional Chinese medicine. This finger-shaped fruit tastes like a cross between Japanese yuzu and lemon, though with a slight floral tinge that can sometimes tastes like lavender. When infused into gin, it imparts a citrus zest and a floral twist to the spirit.

 

Distilling the Dragon

Yet, curating a botanical blend is only part of the story. Another crucial aspect of gin production lies in the distillation process. This involves figuring out which botanicals should be introduced to the spirit, in what manner, and in what order - as certain ingredients may react in unexpected way during each step of the distillation process to create bitter, undesirable flavours. 

 

Co-founder Fergus Woodward preparing the Sichuan peppers for maceration. (Image Source: Graeme Kennedy)

 

Peddlers Gin is made via double distillation in copper pot stills. Using a copper still matters for several reasons. Firstly, copper is a great heat conductor, which ensures even dispersion of heat over the surface of the still. Copper also helps to absorb volatile sulphur compounds during distillation, eliminating unwanted bitter flavours and aromas, resulting in a crisper, cleaner final product.

It is during each of the two stages of distillation that the distillery will infuse the botanicals into the gin. Prior to the first distillation round, sturdier ingredients like juniper, liquorice, angelica and cinnamon are added directly to the neutral alcohol and left to macerate for 12 hours. The resultant mixture is then directly distilled.

 

East Asian mint loaded into the gin basket for vapour infusion (Image Source: Graeme Kennedy)

 

After this, the distilled spirit is run through a second round of distillation. At this point, the distillery will use vapour infusion to introduce some lighter, citrusy flavours. More fragile ingredients such as Buddha’s Hand and East Asian mint are hung from a gin basket over the spirit, releasing vapours through the steam as the still is heated up. This adds more gentle flavours to the spirit. Such an order matters, as the alternative of adding ingredients like mint directly to the spirit to be distilled the first time around would cause it to rapidly degrade. 

After double distillation is complete, the spirit is cut with water and brought down to 40-50% ABV. At this point, it’s ready to be bottled. Peddler’s Gin using the London Dry Method, which guarantees no additional artificial additives or flavouring at added to the gin after distillation.

 

Behind the Name: Of Bikes and Bottles 

Co-founder Ryan McLeod hand delivering Peddlers Gin in 2017.

 

When Peddlers Gin was first getting off to a start, the trio would literally load up their scooters with boxes of gin and hand deliver it to bartenders and consumers across Shanghai.

 

The busy trading port of olden Shanghai. (Image Source: OMSE)

 

And how appropriate! The name Peddlers Gin was itself inspired by the hustle and bustle of Shanghai city, which has traditionally served as a trading port facilitating the exchange of ideas, spices and wares. In olden times, vendors would ride around on bicycles to peddle their goods, selling merchandise right from their carts. During those moments when the founders were driving their gin-loaded scooters around Shanghai, it certainly would not have been lost on them that they too were, quite literally, peddling their wares.

 

 

Image Source: Peddlers Gin

 

Peddlers Gin today acts as a vehicle for continued exploration of flavours and ideas. Since its inception, the brand has grown beyond China, having expanded distribution to other countries including Singapore, Australia, Vietnam, Malaysia and Canada.

For consumers outside China, it offers a chance to taste a uniquely East-Asian take on gin, one which encapsulates the diversity of Chinese botanicals while challenging traditional perceptions of what China’s spirit scene has to offer.

 

Image Source: Peddlers Gin

  

Yet even as the bottles travels far and wide outside of China, each one ultimately still serves as a reference point drawing back to the country in which it was born. From the apothecary-style bottle, to the functional ring for easy pouring whether in alleyways or behind a bar, to it's jade green tint representing purity, Peddler’s Shanghai Gin is an indisputable love letter to the country in which it was born. Heck, even the font on the labels was charmingly designed to resemble 1930s style Shanghainese painted signs!

 

Peddlers' Growing Gin Range

What began as a passion project in a garage in Pudong has now transformed into an award winning brand. Peddlers Gin’s core product, Shanghai Gin, previously bagged Gold at the China Wind and Spirits Awards, and a Bronze at the San Fran World Spirit Awards. 

 

From left to right: Peddlers Gin Shanghai Craft Gin, Peddlers Gin Barrel Aged Gin, Peddlers Gin Salted Plum Gin. (Image Source: Peddlers Gin)

 

Not stopping there, the distillery continues to add to its core range, offering up different flavours made with different production methods in an effort to push the boundaries for China’s craft gin scene.

In 2019, the brand debuted their Barrel-Aged Gin, a version of the Shanghai Gin that was rested for three months in French oak barrels that used to stored Napa Valley pinot noir. The result is an expression with smoother caramel, grapes and stone fruit notes added to the mix.

A more recent release is their Salted Plum Peddlers Gin, their very own take on traditional sloe-gin (a type of gin liqueur classically made in Britain from gin and blackthorn plum). To make this, the distillery infuses gin with salted plum, mulberry, orange peel and osmanthus, before being aged for a month in Oloroso sherry barrels. Inspired by the popular Chinese sour plum drink, suan mei tang (酸梅汤), it’s said to richer notes of hawthorn, vanilla and oak.

  

Leading China’s Craft Gin Revolution

 

Carrying the mantle of China’s first craft gin distillery surely has its perks and its pressures. On the one hand, you get a blank slate on which you can shape a new taste palette for gin-curious drinkers in the country. On the other, make a subpar product, and you could potentially misrepresent an entire category of spirits to skeptical consumers used to their glasses of baijiu. Kudos to the team at Peddlers Gin, they seem to have achieved the former outcome.

Today, Peddlers Gin is no longer China's sole craft gin distillery, sharing the market with a few others such as Porcelain Gin and Balang Gin, which have popped up in China in recent years. These producers are responding to a gradual shift in consumer preferences towards the versatile gin spirit, no doubt aided in part by the early efforts of the pioneering Peddler Gin.

The craft gin renaissance may only be at its early innings in China, and I for one am excited to see what else is in store for Peddlers Gin. 

 

  

@lotusroot518